Defense Beyond the Courtroom
In this week’s blog Allyssa Olear, McCarthy Fellow in San Francisco, describes her internship with the Public Defender’s Office working on projects, Open the Courts Public Action and the Adachi Project. Similar the earlier blog by McCarthy Fellow cohort member, Kacie Williams, Allyssa strengthened her passion to continue public service and commit to advocating for change after connecting with the local community in San Francisco.
This past semester, I had the privilege of working at the San Francisco Public Defender’s office under Carolyn Goossen as a policy intern. While the role of a defender is often seen as exclusive to legal representation, I found that the San Francisco Public Defender’s office approaches this concept of representation from numerous angles of activism and advocacy. Going into this new experience, my expectations could best be summarized by the stereotypical image of a public defender, and I emotionally prepared myself to work alongside the exhausted. While the nature of these assignments was heavy emotionally, I discovered something that no one had prepared me for, though, and these were the little wins: the moments of joy, and the feelings of community that emerge through genuine advocacy.
As Carolyn’s intern, I was tasked with work that related to policy proposals and helping to prepare for demonstrations and press briefings. I wrote a few resolutions in support of a pardon campaign, called in on meetings to make public comment, helped prepare for an Open The Courts (sign petition and see photos here) Public Action, took notes on meetings for the Board of Supervisors, Sheriff’s Oversight Committee, and Budget and Finance Committee, and collected information to prepare for the No More Drug War Press Briefing.
Aside from these tasks, my more steady assignment was my work on The Adachi Project. In honor of the late Jeff Adachi, the SF Public Defender produces films that relate to the stories of their clients. It’s founded on the idea that if more people knew the client’s stories, they may not be so quick to dehumanize those in the criminal justice system. Though the injustices that clients face are horrific, I found glimpses of humanity in TAP and it gave me hope to know that every week, there are passionate and inventive souls dedicating their time to the art of storytelling and amplifying clients’ voices to disrupt the system. I had the privilege of working alongside the TAP team, helping on the logistics of preparing the project for a film. This entailed conducting media research for the team, compiling grant opportunities to help fund this project, and writing a pitch deck letter. It was an honor to support this project in any way and to work alongside the TAP team and their community partners to help prepare for the next story they share.
The role of a defender is so complex; it’s tied to multiple institutions, public opinion, and systemic barriers. The office’s work is impacted by how we treat our unhoused communities, people with addiction, and those undergoing mental health crises. I found that my responsibilities as a policy intern brought to light some implications about the values of San Franciscans. Public defending is not just about keeping people out of jails, it is a choice to look at the systems in place every single day and ask who they serve, and how we can bring more humanity to them. I am so thankful to the McCarthy Center for helping connect me to this meaningful work. It is through programs like this that we find opportunities to meet each other, break the cycles that harm communities, and practice collective healing.
I am overwhelmingly grateful to USF’s McCarthy center, to my mentor-supervisor, Carolyn Goossen, to all the professional staff who I had the privilege to work alongside in this fellowship, and to all the engaged members of the public who helped support our actions and make noise about injustice. Exposure to this work has helped me to better understand news cycles, public meeting protocol, and community organizing. Knowing that my resolutions would be voted on in meetings, and that my research was necessary information to prepare for public discussions helped me hone in on my ability to create quality content under tight timelines and enhance my own professional flexibility. This fellowship helped me to affirm my goal of working in public service after graduating. I am so thankful to have been entrusted with such meaningful work and I am excited to focus on connecting the community to institutions for the public good. If you want to donate to the Adachi Project, please click here! To stay up to date on the local issues that our public defenders are tackling follow their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
I would strongly encourage anyone considering joining the McCarthy Fellows to apply! My experience has helped me affirm my personal career goals and fulfilled my need to apply my academic skills outside of the classroom, and place them in dialogue with our existing systems to challenge punitive practices and advocate for change.